03/06/2014 3:58PM

Dave Tuley: NASCAR race, basketball tournaments drawing crowds


There are a lot of big sports weeks here.

We get big crowds that come here to watch the Super Bowl and the NCAA tournament. The Kentucky Derby is a big draw, as is the Breeders’ Cup. But for all of those events, visitors gather to watch them on big-screen TVs (and, of course, to wager on them). Vegas does host many live sporting events, though we’re best known for hosting major boxing matches and MMA fights and the National Finals Rodeo.

But this next week – while it won’t match the Super Bowl and NCAA crowds or betting handle – blows the rest of the weeks away in terms of attendance for Vegas-based live sporting events.

We’re wrapping up NASCAR Week as the top stock car drivers have been in town all week making appearances at casinos and other businesses and will race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the Boyd Gaming 300 Nationwide race (formerly called the Sam’s Town 300) on Saturday and then in the big Kobalt Tools 400 Sprint Cup race (formerly called by several other sponsored named but still referred to by locals as the Las Vegas 400) on Sunday.

But while that’s been taking place here since 1998, the thing that puts this next week over the top is there are four – count ’em, four – NCAA basketball conference tournaments here in town, even though we’re home to only one major college team, the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels.

Their Mountain West Conference Tournament is being held at the Thomas & Mack Center next Wednesday through Saturday, March 12-15, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that three other conferences have decided in the last few years that the best place to hold their conference tourneys – and award their automatic NCAA bids to March Madness – is here in Vegas instead of having one of their schools in their own leagues host the event. The West Coast Conference Tournament is already under way at the Orleans Arena and runs through Tuesday. Starting next Wednesday, along with the MWC the Pac-12 is back for its second straight year holding its tourney at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The Western Athletic Conference holds its tourney March 13-15.

That’s a lot of fans from a lot of schools coming here to follow their teams’ postseason progress and also turn it into a Vegas vacation!

But let’s get back to the races.

The books here report that this is the biggest auto racing betting weekend of the year with so many fans being able to place their bets and then head out to the track. The handle is expected to total more than twice as much as for the Daytona 500, which is up on the betting boards for two months.

Jimmie Johnson is the 5-1 favorite at the LVH SuperBook, though he was as high as 13-2 at the South Point on Thursday morning. Among the other favorites are Kyle Busch (always popular as a Vegas native) and Matt Kenseth at 7-1, Kasey Kahne at 8-1, and a quartet at 10-1: Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, and Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., who always gets his share of betting tickets.

As is typical of any major sporting event these days, prop bets are offered as well. In addition to head-to-head matchups, the LVH also has over/under finish props on a lot of the drivers (Johnson over/under 5.5, Earnhardt over/under 8.5, and all the way down to Danica Patrick over/under 26.5).

I talked with Ed Salmons of the LVH before the Daytona 500, and he said we’ve seen a decrease in the number of sentimental tickets made on Patrick. Last year in the Daytona 500, Salmons said Patrick had more tickets wagered on her than any other driver and his book would have suffered a loss if she had won, but that wasn’t the case this year.

Other props include over/under 8.5 drivers to lead a lap, over/under 6.5 caution flags, over/under 26.5 cars on the lead lap at the end of the race, whether the winning car will be odd or even, whether the winning car will be numbered 1-23 or 24-99, and who will be the winning manufacturer (Chevy –140, Toyota +225, Ford +350).

It all makes for a great and exciting betting day.

And the same can be said for the college basketball conference tournaments. No official records are released by the state, but there’s no doubt that they create a spike in betting handle as we head toward the main tournament. That doesn’t include money spent on hotel rooms, meals, shopping, shows, and gambling on other events.

The NCAA isn’t too thrilled with this recent trend, but Vegas has maintained all along that sports betting is happening all over the country anyway (yes, even in those cities hosting conference tournaments this week where such activities are outlawed) and it’s best to have it out in the open and regulated, and taxed, too.

The hope is that this upcoming week helps lure even more live sporting events to come here.